Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tchaikovsky at his Best

The Noontime Concerts™ October Russian Music Festival at Old St. Mary's Cathedral, on the edge of San Francisco Chinatown, concluded in grand style with a performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Opus 50, his A minor piano trio. The performers were Miles Graber on piano, Mariya Borozina (the one Russian in the group) on violin, and Victoria Ehrlich on cello. I believe this is the first time I have heard Ehrlich, but Graber and Borozina have played together regularly in the Noontime Concerts™ concerts series, such as this past June, when they joined cellist Miriam Perkoff for the first piano trio by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Graber also appears to be the "house pianist" for the pre-season preview of the Midsummer Mozart Festival at the Noontime Concerts™ series. Tchaikovsky is quite some distance from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart along just about any dimension, except that he was a great admirer of Mozart and demonstrated this in his fourth orchestral suite.
Tchaikovsky's piano trio bears the dedication, "In Memory of a Great Artist." The great artist is Nikolai Rubinstein, founder and first director of the Moscow Conservatory. His connection to Tchaikovsky is summarized nicely in this paragraph from his Wikipedia entry:
While holding his Moscow post, Nikolai persuaded Tchaikovsky to write for him the celebrated Piano Concerto No. 1. According to Tchaikovsky's letters, Rubinstein was unimpressed with the work, and would only perform it if rewritten. Tchaikovsky refused, and the work was premiered instead by Hans von Bülow. Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky wrote his Piano Trio in A minor in Rubinstein's memory after he died in Paris.
Tchaikovsky was appointed Professor of Theory and Harmony when the Conservatory was founded; and, through an ironic gesture of history, the Conservatory has borne Tchaikovsky's name (rather than Rubinstein's) since 1940. To put the compositions in their historical context, the Opus 23 piano concerto, which Rubinstein rejected, was completed in 1875, while the trio dates from 1882, some seven years later.
We can only guess how Rubinstein's ghost would have reacted to this memorial. In contrast to his younger brother Anton, Nikolai "opted for a restrained classicism," as the Wikipedia entry puts it; and "restrained" is probably not the word that springs to mind when listening to the trio. Nevertheless, one could argue that it has more structural discipline than Opus 23. Its substantial duration is divided across two long movements, the first of which is labeled "Pezzo elegiaco" and the second of which is a set of twelve variations on a theme of folk-like simplicity, the last of which is on the scale of a sonata movement unto itself in a finale form that recapitulates the elegiac material. This is one of Tchaikovsky's tightest structural frameworks; and the two-movement structure might be seen as a nod to Ludwig van Beethoven's final (Opus 111) piano sonata were it not for the simplicity of the theme and the complexity of the conclusion.
This much would have undoubtedly have impressed Rubinstein; but within that structural framework we encounter much of that full-fisted piano writing that may have been the reason for Rubinstein's rejection of Opus 23. This stuff is as dangerous as it is passionate. I found myself reviewing an observation I had written back in February, when Nikolai Lugansky performed Opus 23 with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt. Here is what I wrote about Lugansky:
This was a soloist who brought athletic strength to his performance, often making his instrument shake with the hammer-like impact of his fingers. This is the sort of performance one comes to expect from this concerto; but, since this is NBA All-Star weekend, the effect is a little bit like those "performed" slam dunks that really have nothing to do with how the game is actually played. Put another way, it is the epitome of that Brahms adjective "Lisztich" with a Russian accent. The difference, however, is that, even early in his career, Tchaikovsky had a much better sense of orchestral sound than Liszt did; and, while Blomstedt clearly understood that sense, he had to contend with Lugansky's pounding, which was ultimately a losing battle.
Needless to say, Rubinstein had a strong preference for Brahms over Liszt; but Brahms was just as capable of getting the piano to "roar" with a massively grand sound. Ultimately, the difference could come down to the distinction between control and abandon; and Graber delivered a performance that was far closer in spirit to Brahms than to Liszt. Thus, not only was this a performance that might have mollified Rubinstein's ghost; but also its abundant expressiveness was always kept under control, for the sake of both the pianist's personal energy budget and the need to balance the more limited dynamics of the strings against the power of the piano. This is not to say that the strings were weak: To the contrary, both Borozina and Ehrlich had very rich sounds, which carried their share of the "expressiveness burden" with an impressive palette of sonorities. The result was a performance that was true to both the music itself and the "memorial obligation" of the work's dedication, which is why my Title declared it an embodiment of Tchaikovsky at his best.

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